Director Julie Taymor unleashes the mythic poetry of 'Tempest' and 'Spider-Man'

The director of Broadway's 'Lion King' strives for lyricism, magic with Shakespeare's spell-weaver and Marvel's web-slinger

  • Helen Mirren stars as Prospera in Julie Taymor's film adaptation of "The Tempest."
Helen Mirren stars as Prospera in Julie Taymor's film… (Handout photo )
December 17, 2010|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Conviction, passion and creativity crackle and swing with a jazzy euphoria when you talk to Julie Taymor about art, whether the tragicomedy of the Bard or the myth-making of Marvel Comics.

The director who brought experimental techniques to the Great White Way with "The Lion King" returns to screen and stage this winter with a rare aesthetic one-two combination.

Taymor has unveiled a lyrical, thrilllingly lucid film of Shakespeare's "The Tempest," starring Helen Mirren, while completing the hugely ambitious and elaborate Broadway musical, " Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," which boasts a score by Bono and the Edge. ( "Spider-Man" has been weathering technical difficulties while doing sell-out business in previews. The official opening has been postponed until February.)

In a way, she's come full circle. Her first significant job in professional American theater was creating sets, costumes, face masks and puppets for a Center Stage Young People's Theater production of "The Odyssey." Back then, in 1979, she told The Sun of her admiration for "sophisticated" theater that was also accessible enough for children "to enjoy and follow the story."

Her questing spirit has taken her around the world, including four influential years in Bali, right before she landed at Center Stage. (She did masks and puppets for another Center Stage production, Christopher Hampton's "Savages," in 1982.) She was born and raised in Newton, Mass. But there's a bit of Baltimore in her creative DNA, too.

"I was in Baltimore all through my childhood," she said last week, "seeing my aunts and uncles. My mother went to Goucher, my father went to Johns Hopkins, my grandmother lived in Baltimore. So I knew Baltimore pretty well. We'd go every year."

Taymor views culture as a live continuum: She doesn't divide it into high and low, just as she doesn't divide audiences into hip and square or young and old.

"Shakespeare was a pop icon in his day — and too bad he isn't now, but he was — and Spider-Man is one today," she said. "The idea that I'm taking this pop thing and putting it on stage, and taking what people think of as highfaluting esoteric Shakespeare and putting it in movies — it's kind of amusing. But I see them both as potentially popular pieces that, if you want, can go very deep into human psychology and philosophy. Is that too much for people? Well, we'll see!"

Few plays are as tricky as "The Tempest." Taymor rightly calls it, in her introduction to the published script, "a revenge drama, a romance and a black comedy."

Still, she said, "I've done it enough in the theater to love it and feel I was ready to do it in film." She mounted her first "Tempest" (also her first Shakespeare) in 1986. She carried elements of that production into this movie, including the resonant opening image of a sand castle disintegrating in a pounding rain. But the extravagant compositions of this "Tempest" invaded her imagination when she went to Hawaii's small, sparse Lanai Island on vacation.

"I immediately said, 'My God, if I ever do 'The Tempest' on film, this is the island. All of its landscapes became metaphors for the landscapes of the mind. The ironwood forest: perfect for a labyrinth when a conspiracy is evolving, I could use the trees as barriers to hide the conspirators. And then you have these gnarled bramble trees that are ideal for the drunken scenes, like a fairy tale gone bad."

She was able to form otherworldly storybook images out of actual sun, sand, rocks and sea, whether on Lanai or on the Big Island of Hawaii, "where I had seen these miles and miles of black lava rock, with one lone tree or patch of grass in the middle of it."

Taymor uses "ideographs" — core symbolic images, charged with emotion and meaning — to advance her thinking about theater and film. For Taymor, Prospero/Prospera has always been "a volcano on the edge of explosion. We all know what you can get from fire. Fire is the agent of transformation" — which sometimes means demolition.

Taymor gave the character a sex change "because Helen [Mirren] makes a great Prospera, period." But the complicated hero turned into an even more complex heroine. In her "Tempest" book, Taymor describes Prospera as "the witch, the scientist, the poet, the ferocious tiger protecting her cub, the steely leader, and more."

Taymor has always been drawn to myths. "All of the comic books that Marvel has put out, and especially 'Spider-Man,' are based on mythology — in this case, the origin of the Spider, Arachne, the Greek myth. It is about hubris. Peter Parker is the chosen: he has no hubris, so he is the perfect Spider-Man. But all his villains — all of them — he never kills directly. They all die of their own hubris."

The heroine of Taymor's "Tempest" also has a bit of that.

"[Prospera] allows her power to get the better of her. She does to others what is done to her. Revenge and the desire for vengeance almost take her down, but at that moment her spirit, in Ariel, says, the better virtue is in compassion, forgiveness. Shakespeare will show you the dark side but he's not such a  bitter cynic that he doesn't also believe in the regenerative power of human beings and their power to transcend their limitations. That's why I love 'The Tempest.' And that's why I love 'Spider Man' as well. It's about 'with great power comes great responsibility.' It's about how we can rise above our petty selves."

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